Performance Anxieties: On Failing to Read Finnegans Wake

By Conley, Tim | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Performance Anxieties: On Failing to Read Finnegans Wake


Conley, Tim, Papers on Language & Literature


And I shall be misunderstord if understood (F W 163.22) As difficult as it is to configure authorial forms of or for Joyce--to answer "who in hallhagal wrote the durn thing anyhow" (FW 107.36-108.01)--or even to produce a workable text of Ulysses, conjuring up for scrutiny the reader of Joyce may well prove even more of a challenge. Derrida's recognition of Joyce as an "event" (148) is a useful way of getting around the usual fallacies of authorial control, but academic adoption of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and quarantine of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake instead choose to address these stigmatized books as an eventuality, to which their critical equipment will provide an emergency response: IN CASE OF JOYCE BREAK GLASS. What is not readily assimilated into programmatic academic discourse--at the Wake Joyce remains "our greatly misunderstood one" (FW 470.01)--is in the meantime monitored carefully. Umberto Eco's lamentation of the canonization of Thomas Aquinas as that philosopher's worst moment, "the moment when the big arsonist is appointed Fire Chief" (Travels 258), portrays a situation that perpetually threatens to apply to Joyce, but the appointment is always deferred, in part because for every accolade afforded Ulysses there are more grumbling dismissals of the Wake.

Put very crudely, this book is understood to be the epitome of difficulty. It would be fatuous, certainly, to deny or even to marginalize the fact that the level of estrangement projected by the text itself is considerable (who isn't afraid of Finnegans Wake?). In his contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Frank Budgen looks at the issue of "difficulty," if you will, from the text's point of view rather than from the piteous reader's:

The difficulty of entering into the imaginative world of Work in Progress lies in no unessential obscurity on Joyce's part but in our own atrophied word sense due in large measure to the fact that our sensibilities have been steam-rollered flat by a vast bulk of machine made fiction. The reader is becoming rarer than the writer. The words of dead poets are read and confirmed like the minutes of the previous meeting, with perhaps the dissentient voice of one Scotch shareholder. Taken as read? Agreed. Agreed. (41)

"Taken as read" is precisely what Finnegans Wake is not, in any sense of that phrase. Instead, this literary work's primary notoriety is its status as the most prominent exile in the colony of unread books--a status perpetuated by the publishing and pedagogical warning signs that blockade so many points of entry. A very good example of such scaffolding is Roland McHugh's The Finnegans Wake Experience. McHugh's title alone suggests that there is something unusual about or more involved than simply reading this book: I have yet to come across The Three Musketeers Experience or A Reader's Guided Tour of Mansfield Park. Yes, reading the Wake is different, but are its readers? McHugh makes a point of explaining how he himself is, at any rate.

I spent almost three years reading Finnegans Wake . . . before looking at any kind of critical account. I contrived to retain this innocence until I had formulated a coherent system of interpretation. I was then able to evaluate the guidebooks from a neutral vantage point and elude indoctrination. Of course, I learned valuable things from them, and had often to discard illformed conclusions in consequence. But this seemed a healthy process, although its duration grotesquely exceeded the time any reasonable person would devote to a book. I hardly intend that my present readers should repeat my example, but I feel that the experience qualifies me to introduce [Finnegans Wake] to them in a particularly helpful manner. (1-2)

The bizarre hypocrisy of this grandstanding gesture--to appoint oneself a reliable guide after eschewing the idea of such a function--notwithstanding, I want to draw attention to some of McHugh's other, equally dissatisfying assumptions. …

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